research

With monks as dancers wearing masks and ornamented costumes, accompanied by traditional Tibetan music, ‘cham is an extravagant display of the overcoming of evil forces and is held to bring liberation to all who witness it. It is held during traditional religious days and a performance usually lasts up to three days in the temple courtyard. The audience is reassured of spiritual cultivation and that the New Year will bring prosperity. Destruction of monastic life and banning of religious dance in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution in China has greatly affected the enacting of ‘cham. Following the outpour of Tibetans to the borderlands such as India and Nepal, ‘cham has been revived to a certain extent in exile. However, the practice of ‘cham is threatened by the decreasing number of realized masters, loss of interest by younger monks, rampant capitalism, modern education curriculums, and the dispersion of peoples fleeing war or other hardship. In some temples the dance has degenerated into a common spectacle which, bare of its deep mystic meaning, has become a profane play performed for tourists.

Mesmerized by its mysticism and urged by its near extinction, I decided to embark on my mission to “save” the dance. However, being a woman and a layperson struggling in samsara, I am blatantly disqualified from the execution of ’cham; only monks with enough spiritual attainment are qualified. When I interviewed a monk on the significance of ‘Cham, he mentioned he could only reveal to me the meaning of the dance on the surface level. There is much underneath that cannot be disclosed as part of the tantric secret to an uninitiated layperson like me. Since the mantras form one of the most secret parts of the ‘Chams, they have not been put to writing but are apparently handed down by oral tradition. Forbidden to dance, I struggle to tackle the “I” persona as a kinesthetically empathetic source, dancing and reflecting on sensation and meaning. On second thought, even if I am allowed to execute the movements, the content and quality of the dancers’ inner experiences would still remain inaccessible through my own limited movement perception. The dance calls for an experience beyond intellect and sense perceptions. Authenticity of representation dictates more than just placing the researcher’s body at the centre of a discursive or reflexive inquiry; it necessitates an honest acknowledgment of the (in)capacity of the mode of representation. One resists the urge to dance because the body falls short of it. When the language is inadequate, I decide to turn to the medium of film to express what cannot be expressed through words in the dance.

Researching on ‘cham through the Choreomundus program (August 2013- June 2015) has brought me to far more places than I have ever imagined in Europe: Norway, France, Germany, Croatia, Austria, Hungary and England. To my own surprise, I have managed to gather invaluable information on Tibetan studies, albeit less so on ‘cham, from these European countries, either from individuals or institutions. It might appear to be incomprehensible at first glance the connection between ‘cham and Europe for it is neither where the dance ritual originated nor where it is practised. However, it is in this continent where a vast majority of research on ‘cham has been carried out. Apart from the unwavering support I gather from the five professors who are the conveners of the Choreomundus program: Egil Bakka and Gediminas Karoblis (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), László Felföldi (University of Szeged), Georgiana Gore (Blaise Pascal University) and Andrée Grau (University of Roehampton), every stop of mine in Europe has yielded beautiful encounters with people guiding me along my research journey.

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